In his return to NASCAR competition, Tony Stewart has found some trouble before the halfway point of the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Following a restart at Lap 122 of 325, Kyle Busch pinched Stewart on the backstretch, causing both of them to tag the outside wall. A caution came out shortly after for Marcos Ambrose, but both Stewart and Busch were forced to go to the pits for right-side damage repairs.
After pitting multiple times for that, fresh tires, and a realignment of the front end of his car, Stewart took a Lap 135 restart in 21st position (one spot behind Kyle Busch in 20th). He was still in 21st place at halfway.
Up front, Matt Kenseth was the halfway leader, with Kevin Harvick in second, Kurt Busch in third, Brad Keselowski is fourth, and Denny Hamlin is fifth.
With the eyes of perhaps the entire sports world upon him, Stewart quickly made progress early on from 12th on the grid. Riding the high line, Stewart moved from 12th to 7th in the first two laps and then rose into the Top 5 by Lap 20.
Meanwhile, pole sitter Harvick had a relatively uneventful stint pacing the field – except for a moment where he spotted an apparent animal crossing Turn 3 in front of him. Harvick radioed that he thought the animal was a cat, but it was later reported by PRN Radio that it was actually a squirrel.
A debris caution slowed the field at Lap 38, but not before Harvick had lapped half the field in the opening (Austin Dillon was the last car on the lead lap in 22nd at the time).
Following the first wave of stops for the leaders, Harvick and Jeff Gordon retained the top two spots, while teammates Kenseth and Hamlin each jumped multiple spots to take third and fourth respectively. Carl Edwards came out fifth, but had to return to the pits to have a scoring transponder replaced on his car; however, he was given P5 back before the restart at Lap 45.
Stewart was dropped to sixth after the stops, then lost another spot off the restart. He was able to return to the Top 5 by Lap 60, while up front, his teammate and employee Harvick once again pulled away.
At Lap 78, Gordon slammed into the Turn 3 wall after blowing a tire, bringing out the caution. While he got repairs on pit road, Hamlin was able to out-hustle Harvick and claim the lead after stops.
During that caution, Clint Bowyer – who entered tonight holding a 31-point cushion over the Chase cutoff – had to go to the garage.
“Shifter’s broke,” Bowyer yelled in the car. “Son of a [gun].”
Bowyer is currently 15th on the Chase Grid, but his post-season hopes have likely taken a hit ahead of next weekend’s regular season finale at Richmond. He eventually returned to the track following the Lap 100 mark, but at 22 laps off the pace and in 42nd position; he’s since moved up slightly to 40th.
Harvick pressured Hamlin for the lead immediately on the restart at Lap 85. But after a couple of laps, Hamlin won the battle, with Harvick settling in second and Kenseth taking third from Keselowski. A bit farther back, Stewart began to falter for the first time tonight as he dropped out of the Top 10.
Hamlin kept P1 until Lap 108, when Harvick passed him down the backstretch to re-take control of the race. He again pushed his lead to over one second, leaving Hamlin to deal with Keselowski for second.
A spin for Ryan Truex in Turn 4 brought out a yellow at Lap 116 and led to the leaders pitting again. Here, Hamlin’s No. 11 pit crew again earned their money with another quick stop that got him out ahead of Harvick.
On the restart at Lap 122, Stewart and Kyle Busch made their contact down the backstretch. Moments later, Ambrose pulled off the track with smoke billowing from the rear of his car.
Due to an extended cleanup of pit road after Ambrose dropped fluid there, the restart didn’t come until Lap 135. One lap later, Kurt Busch went to the outside of Kenseth and claimed the lead for himself, but Kenseth was able to take it back at Lap 159.
Kenseth is seeking his first win of 2014.